About “LGBT” (Update: Ready for my close-up!)

Update: I’ve published this document, along with some material from the proposal that prompted it, to my Academia.edu page. Check it out over there, and feel free to make use of it as long as you give credit where credit’s due. I reference this video (below) in the document, so check it out, why don’t you?

Right now, I’m shepherding a new course on LGBT Literature & Culture through my College. I’ve discussed Heteronormativity in the College Classroom with a student writer before, which led to a very insightful publication displaying her talent. The committee tasked with approving it had some curiosity about the naming of the class, and this turned out to be broadly relevant, so I’m sharing my response here. The question that prompted this little impromptu disquisition is below:

A question came up at the committee meeting about title being LGBT rather than LGBGQ or some other combination of identifying letters.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) represents terms for identity that are widely embraced by the authors of the texts in this field and by many readers in the communities represented by this literature. They are internally diverse constituencies, but their combination into “LGBT” is an index of how closely linked the lives and texts of people designated by these terms have been in the 19th and 20th century.
Gender and sexuality, more broadly, are the categories within which these values operate; in other contexts, like American Studies, I’ve used the term “Gender & Sexuality Studies” to describe the many different relationships to those categories that have been used by scholarship in different disciplines: sociology, history, anthropology, health/medicine, geography, and economics all deal with gender and sexuality as variables in different terms, just as various schools of thought in literary studies employ different terms to invoke how the topics of gender and sexuality emerge in the texts we study.

Here are some programs, departments, and institutes that approach the study of gender and sexuality in different ways:

Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The College of Staten Island (City University of New York)

Center for the Study of Gender & Sexuality (University of Chicago)

Institute for Gender and Development Studies (University of the West Indies)

LGBT Studies Program  (University of Maryland)

The literature of gender and sexuality, in the abstract, encompasses a whole range of considerations (desire, coming-of-age, conformity, questions of propriety, “pathologies,” intimacy, consent, intersections with other axes of social formation like race and class, etc.) that can be totally subsumed within heterosexual and cisgender frames of reference. Using the term LGBT, on the other hand, specifies a particular selection of literature produced by (sometimes for and about) persons identified with the particular genders and sexualities that aren’t necessarily accounted for when we consider gender and sexuality in the abstract. The “T” in LGBT is a gesture of inclusion and solidarity, meant to signal my intention to teach the course in a way that won’t take transgender authors and students for granted and won’t privilege attention to the sexual orientation of cisgender people over the recognition of distinct varieties of gender identity and expression.
Queer, on the other hand, is what we call a floating signifier. It’s probably familiar to most readers as a term that was once benign, became a derogatory epithet, and was subsequently reclaimed by persons to whom it had been applied pejoratively. Sometimes, “queer” designates persons or corresponds to people’s self-identification, but more often, in the academic context, it telegraphs a practical or political critique. One reason I don’t employ the term LGBTQ, in this instance, is that queer is just as often an alternative to the words that LGBT stands for as it is an umbrella term for them. The turn toward LGBT is one of the ways this course differs from the existing course in Queer Theory (in my College).

It might be viable to develop an advanced course in Queer Literatures or Queer Methods in Literary Studies, with or without LGBT Lit as a prerequisite.

LGBTQA or LGBTA, on the other hand, includes an A that sometimes stands for “(cis and/or straight) ally” and sometimes stands for “asexual.” In working with students who identify as asexual, it’s proven counterproductive to situate asexuality as if it’s one among many ways to describe sexual desire/attraction. Moreover, I can’t claim to be teaching LGBTA literature when, in fact, I’m not addressing the A for asexual in a substantive fashion. This might change in the future, as I expand my expertise.

Read more about the course proposal at Academia.edu.
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